The finest of Sri Lanka's early years
In recent articles I looked at the first great batsman from India and Pakistan. After watching Sri Lanka's meritorious victory in the World T20 recently, I was motivated to continue this wander through the history of some of my favourite cricket-playing countries and move on to consider who was Sri Lanka's first great with the blade.
As I have noted previously, one of the difficulties in such an endeavour is trying to evaluate performances across eras and times, and particularly for players we may not have witnessed personally and for whom there is no available video footage to review. However, Sri Lanka are easier in this regard than either India or Pakistan, as they are a relatively recent introduction to the family of Test-playing nations.
I am using the same criteria as with the previous pieces in only considering batsmen who have played at Test level. Sri Lanka made their debut in 1982. This means that many undoubtedly very good players are not eligible. Batsmen such as MK Albert, LDS Gunasekera, Nihal Gurusinghe, Frederick C de Saram, Mahadevan Sathasivam, Sargo Jayawickreme, TCT Edward, Mano Ponniah, Stanley Jayasinghe, Anura Tennekoon, Sunil Wettimuny and Ievers Gunasekara all have excellent reputations and are worth acknowledging for their performances for both Ceylon and Sri Lanka prior to their country becoming a Test nation.
Other players, including Bandula Warnapura (who captained Sri Lanka in their inaugural Test match), Duleep Mendis and Sidath Wettimuny, likewise deserve recognition for their efforts in getting Sri Lanka to a point where they were admitted as a Test nation, and then for their performances in the team's early years of international competition.
However, my choice for Sri Lanka's first great batsman is Roy Dias. He was, without question, a truly great batsman. As with many countries during their early years in Test cricket, Sri Lanka struggled with a lack of bowling strike power to really threaten any of the established nations. However, the reliable presence of Dias in the top order ensured that their batting had a stability that most new teams take years to develop.
Dias was born on October 18, 1952 in Colombo. His ball skills were apparent early, and he was lucky to have a number of Sri Lanka's best coaches assist him through his schooling. Carl Obeysekera, a former All-Ceylon cricketer, was a major influence during Dias' formative years. He provided him with his first coaching lessons, and contributed to his developing a classic technique that facilitated his ability to adapt to changing pitch conditions.
Dias left school in 1972 and was quickly picked up by the Colts Cricket Club in Colombo. He played for them for the next eight seasons, before moving to the Sinhalese Sports Club in 1980, and finally finishing his career with the Colombo Cricket Club in 1988. He was selected to make his formal international debut for Sri Lanka in the 1979 World Cup. On the back of strong batting performances by him, Mendis and Tennekoon, Sri Lanka had established themselves as the dominant side among the Associate nations. The highlight of Sri Lanka's then very short international career came in their third and final match, against India. Sri Lanka won their first game, putting together a score of 238 for 5 on the back of half-centuries from Dias, Mendis and Sunil Wettimuny. In reply, India slumped to 191 all out. This victory was a pivotal moment in Sri Lanka's push to become a full-fledged Test nation. Following the intense lobbying of Australia's delegates, among others, Sri Lanka were finally admitted as a Test-playing nation in 1981.
Their inaugural Test match commenced on February 17, 1982 at the P Sara Oval. Dias' first Test innings was a disaster: he was dismissed for a duck, caught by Geoff Cook off Bob Willis. While Sri Lanka were dismissed for 218, they did well to limit England's response to just 223. However they could only manage 175 in their second innings, reaching the total predominantly due to Dias' magnificent 77, with only two other players managing to get double figures. It was not enough, though, and England won easily, by seven wickets.
Dias was quite old when he made his Test debut - nearly 30. However, his experience and skills were to prove of inestimable value to his nation. He was a classically correct strokemaker, capable of both attack and defence, depending upon the circumstances, and unlike many of his compatriots, equally comfortable against both pace and spin.
Sri Lanka quickly followed this one-off Test against England with a three-match tour of Pakistan. Dias just missed his first Test century in the second game, in Faisalabad, scoring 98 before being caught off left-arm spinner Iqbal Qasim, with the game ending in a draw. In the third Test, in Lahore, he managed to get triple figures and finished the series with 295 runs at 49.16, reinforcing his rating as the best batsman in the team.
He followed this with scores of 60 and 97 in the one-off Test against India in Madras. At the conclusion of his career, Dias was to rate this 97 as the best innings he ever played. One of his opponents, Sunil Gavaskar, also considered the performance, on a wearing pitch against India's spinners, to be one of the best batting displays he ever saw.
Sri Lanka's next Test series was against New Zealand in 1984 and Dias was again in top form, making his second Test century in Colombo (108 out of 289) against an attack featuring Richard Hadlee and Ewen Chatfield. The following year he had his best Test series. He started disappointingly with scores of 4 and a duck in the first Test against India. However, Sri Lanka recorded their first victory when they beat them at the P Sara in the second match. Dias made 95 and 60 not out and India were bowled out for 198, giving Sri Lanka a 149-run win. Dias scored his third Test century in the final game of the series, and finished with 273 runs at 54.60.
Dias was one of a number of players discarded for both Test and one-day matches by the selectors following Sri Lanka's disappointing 1987 World Cup performances. While it was claimed that Sri Lanka were looking for new talent to take them forward, it was a sad end for a man who had done so much to make his nation competitive over the years since their admittance into international competition. Dias was over 35 by this time, but he still appeared to have much to offer in the five-day game, and it seems unfortunate that his Test-match place was lost largely on the back of poor limited-overs results.
His final Test batting average of 36.71 is perhaps not overly impressive when viewed in isolation, but it fails to capture his immense contribution to a young and inexperienced team. He is still the fastest Sri Lankan to 1000 Test runs, getting there in just 23 innings, which ranks in front of current players such as Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara.
His peers all rated him very highly. A measure of his standing in the game was demonstrated when Viv Richards was asked to name his World XI. He overlooked many of his own team-mates, such as Richie Richardson and Larry Gomes, to name Dias as his No. 3.
Following his early enforced retirement, Dias kept his links with cricket alive. He set up an academy for talented players in Colombo, and was one of the selectors who picked the 1996 World Cup-winning squad. He was appointed as Sri Lanka's coach after Bruce Yardley was sacked in 1998, and Sri Lanka had a very successful 15-month period under him, beating England comprehensively in a one-off Test at The Oval and also winning a series against New Zealand. However, Dias was sacked after Sri Lanka's poor performances in the 1999 World Cup.
From there, he was offered a position as coach of the Nepal national team, and he helped them take great strides. The Nepal Under-19 side were the Plate runners-up in the 2002 World Cup and won the Plate title in 2006, and Dias' efforts were recognised by King Gyanendra, who awarded him the Prabal Gorkha Dakshin Bahu (IV Class), an honour Dias described as being equivalent to a knighthood or OBE. Roy has also been an ICC match referee and subsequently coached the Oman and Malaysian teams since leaving Nepal.
Stuart Wark works at the University of New England as a research fellow